The small desert city of Marfa, Texas, has become an unlikely magnet for artists and art lovers
The artist Donald Judd collected more than 13,000 books, many of which are now housed in a curated library in Marfa, Texas, the town Judd made his home from 1979 until his death in 1994.
Curiously, Judd organized his books not alphabetically or by subject but in order of their authors’ birth. Like much of what Judd touched, this system seems idiosyncratic but reveals, on closer inspection, a certain logic.
The same can be said of the town. In Marfa, things aren’t always the way you expect them to be, and that’s in large part what has made this place deep in the Chihuahuan high desert one of the most talked-about, if unlikely, art destinations in decades.
Marfa’s reputation as an overnight sensation doesn’t give the town its full due. It’s now deep into its fifth decade as a draw for artists. Judd first visited Marfa in 1971, although he didn’t buy property there until 1979, after first considering California.
He acquired Fort D.A. Russell, a compound of decommissioned military buildings. Judd transformed the base into a permanent space to showcase art in a nonmuseum setting.
Most writing about Marfa begins or ends with Donald Judd because it now seems so difficult to untangle the man from the larger story of the town — but it’s a very real place that nearly 2,000 people call home. It’s a town, not a hashtag.
Just as Vegas has public libraries, New York has chain restaurants, and Hollywood has post offices, everyday life exists alongside the myth in Marfa. In fact, the everyday realities of Marfa were what appealed to Judd.
It was a place that offered both freedom and space. In a mission statement for the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum in Marfa that Judd founded and that still continues his legacy, he wrote, “The art and architecture of the past that we know is that which remains. The best is that which remains where it was painted, placed or built. Most of the art of the past that could be moved was taken by conquerors.”
To Donald Judd, Marfa was his fortress against would-be conquerors. Its art would not be moved, and its remoteness set the stage for the town to essentially become a modern pilgrimage site for artists.
The Marfa Appeal
Legacy alone isn’t enough to make most people pack up their lives and move, of course, particularly to a place that’s a three-hour drive from the nearest airport. Marfa boasts a Dollar General, a few grocery stores, an outsize number of restaurants for a town its size, and the country’s smallest National Public Radio station, Marfa Public Radio (93.5 on the dial).
It also has a long and varied history prior to Judd’s arrival. Among other things, it’s been a railroad water stop, a base for the cavalry to protect West Texas from Pancho Villa (that would be Fort D.A. Russell) and a filming site for Hollywood movies—from Giant, in 1956, to There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, both filmed in 2006. Marfa is also the subject of the Art Opening(s) third episode: Seriously, Why Marfa? Listen here.
With a population smaller than many suburban high schools, there’s a very real intimacy to daily life there that’s not for everyone. Kate Green, a former curator at Marfa Contemporary, admitted to me in a phone call that moving there was a difficult adjustment.
She describes the landscape as “so different, with its horizontality. Having grown up in the Northeast and Northwest, I was used to the landscape being dominated by these tall trees. I had to figure out what was different, and that’s why I actually had kind of a hard time living in it for quite a while. Once I figured it out, I think I was able to appreciate it. Now it feels like home.”
I pressed Green further about this adjustment process, and she described the unique interplay between place and culture that makes Marfa so distinct from other towns. “Most of us have been to remote places, but maybe [that feeling] is even more distinct in Marfa because it’s a desert landscape,” she says.
“And the sky is so large because the horizon line is so low. Then you see the mountains around you and anything that sticks up — the town, the people in it — is distinct from the landscape. The remoteness stands out.
“And it’s very quiet in Marfa. There’s little noise beyond nature. So that feeling of being so far from the rest of what you know feels dominant.”
Why Donald Judd Came
Judd famously hated the term “minimalism,” but if I were to ask you to picture some of Judd’s work — the sort of thing you’d see on a postcard from Marfa — you might call to mind his concrete boxes in the desert. It’s the austerity of the work that fixes it in the mind of its viewer.
Although Judd would never describe it as minimalist, Marfa has become known for just this kind of work: large-scale, permanent, fixed and sometimes inscrutable. But understanding what Judd was trying to do unlocks the meaning of the place and much of the art it’s known for.
Judd came to Marfa not just for the space but in search of authenticity. He was dissatisfied with the New York art world in which, he felt, tastemakers and curators divorced art from its power.
To Judd, if an artist worked his piece in the studio or on a chosen plot of land, to remove it from that place and put it in a gallery or museum felt false. He hoped in Marfa to give primacy back to his creations.
A visit to the New York home and studio that Judd left behind — now a museum — reveals a disciplined and ordered mind. Tables were built in proportion to the scale of the massive windows overlooking SoHo, and a loft bed for Judd’s children features a ladder built so simply and ingeniously that I wondered why I’d never seen one like it before.
For Today’s Marfa
Once you accept Judd’s exacting nature, his move to Marfa feels less like pretension and more like a spiritual quest. There’s an intangible, romantic quality to Marfa and the surrounding desert. Painter Ann Marie Nafziger — who has lived in Marfa since 2002 and been the town’s mayor since May 2017 — finds inspiration in it for her own work.
“The great expanse of sky, the way that the light affects color and the distance with which one can see are really inspiring,” she says. “It evokes a sense of freedom in whatever I’m working on, whether it’s a painting or a project or even just the intention of something that I’d like to do or see happen.
“There is a broad sense of freedom that I think people would describe as ‘the West,’ that vast and open feeling. People who are drawn to areas like this to live and work tend to have an entrepreneurial spirit — or that kind of freedom is something that’s really important to them.”
A large part of Nafziger’s job as mayor is making sure that Marfans themselves aren’t lost in the shuffle. “There’s so much attention from the outside world on the arts and tourism, but there’s a whole community of people who live and work here all the time,” she says. “So I try to really focus on that part of the community. We’re a really diverse community, and I’m always looking for our shared values. What are the things that bring us together?”
Green says something similar. “It sometimes feels as if there are two groups: the art community and the community at large,” she says. “But there are certainly plenty of us that exist in both of those realms. You’ll see people at a Zumba class and also at an exhibition opening.”
For Green, the divide isn’t something distinct about Marfa but, instead, a larger phenomenon of which Marfa is often cited as an example. “The 100 or so people [in the art community] are a very visible element of Marfa, so it creates this kind of stark distinction that you might not otherwise have,” she says.
“But we’ve had the same conversations in every place: Austin, Brooklyn, Portland. There are always the questions of gentrification and what it means when a creative community comes in and raises house prices. The really important questions — the topics that are on people’s minds and that come up in city council meetings or conversations with friends — are also questions that most places are grappling with.”
Marfa State of Mind
If you go there, Marfa will welcome you, but it takes a person suited to the landscape, isolation and quiet to make a serious go of it. So if you’re an artist searching for your own space, how do you find your Marfa?
“The most important thing, I’d say, is to simply make sure that you’re really being true to yourself and what it is that you want,” says Nafziger, when I ask her this question.
“Years ago I lived in Portland, Oregon, which isn’t a major art center, and I lived and worked there for about 10 years. I had a great group of artist friends there and it was a really rich time for me, but being in Marfa is similar — the experiences I have here are very rich.
“My goal as an artist is to still be painting or making work when I’m 90 years old, so it’s about what’s going to continue to be with me as an artist so that I want to keep practicing. And frankly, right now, being mayor is a big part of that. You never know where things are going to take you. One road leads to another, and the next thing you know, you’re mayor of Marfa.”
More on Marfa
Be sure to listen to the Art Opening(s) podcast’s third episode, Seriously, Why Marfa?, featuring more from the Mayor of Marfa, Ann Marie Nafziger and from curator Kate Green.
After all this talk of art pilgrimages and wide open spaces, are you ready to get out there and paint? Get the most out of your experience by first getting great instruction from Backpacker Painting with Michael Chesley Johnson: Oil on Location video download. You’ll received top instruction on how to paint on location and make the most of your wanderlust with powerful art.